Also see Sharon's recent review of The Madwoman of Chaillot
Blue is a play about a black family in South Carolina in the late 1970s. This is to be distinguished from a play about being black in South Carolina in the late 1970s. Blue is not concerned with the experiences of people of different races in America. It is, instead, a play about our shared similarities - kids fighting with their parents, teenagers trying to find their place in the world, people forced to get along with their in-laws, and so forth. Told through the eyes of the family's youngest son, Blue is the semi-autobiographical tale of its playwright, Charles Randolph-Wright, and, in particular, his mother.
The mother in Blue is Peggy, wife of the owner of a lucrative funeral home. Played by Phylicia Rashad, Peggy is a former fashion model who still struts as a matter of course. Impeccably dressed, opinionated, and an unrepentant snob, she is a terror to any girl who is under the mistaken impression she is worthy of one of Peggy's sons. Anyone familiar with Rashad's television work knows that she can easily play a strong willed character, but Peggy is miles away from anyone who might be married to Bill Cosby, and it takes Rashad all of a minute onstage to make you forget she'd ever played second banana to anyone. She is controlling and condescending, but there is never a moment when Rashad's performance lets you forget the familial love that motivates Peggy's actions.
Rashad could easily carry this show on her own, but she's not the only powerhouse actress in the cast. She is joined by Diahann Carroll as Peggy's mother-in-law, Tillie. Tillie is a combination of two seemingly contradictory stock characters: the perfectly polished mother-in-law who torments her daughter-in-law by setting impossible standards; and the older woman who has reached the age where she just doesn't care any more, so will speak her mind. Carroll balances the two well, easily establishing Tillie as a force Peggy must reckon with - and then earning great laughs every time she gets down off her high horse to play in the mud. If there is a flaw in Carroll's performance it's that her more quiet moments are sometimes so soft-spoken the sound system fails to pick her up, and her subtlety is lost on audience members trying to catch what it is that she's said.
The third woman in the show is Felicia Wilson, who portrays LaTonya, a teenage girl dating the family's oldest son. She's a lower-class, fast-talking, skimpy-outfit-wearing woman with personality to spare. When LaTonya is sprung on Peggy as a last-minute dinner guest, the audience starts laughing even before the inevitable fireworks begin. Wilson holds her own with Rashad and Carroll and is a delightful addition to the play.
The second act of Blue picks up the family fifteen years after the first and focuses more on a family "secret" that was briefly, yet obviously, telegraphed in the first act. Randolph-Wright drags out the revelation, and things move pretty slowly as one scene after another almost sees the truth come out, but ultimately postpones it. Nonetheless, once the secret is finally revealed, the remainder of the play gets back on track, albeit a more dramatic one. The overall structure of this act may be somewhat problematic, but the individual scenes are well-crafted and the performances remain first-rate. In particular, Clifton Davis, who plays the family patriarch, comes into his own in the second act, after having spent the first act wisely leaving the spotlight to the women. He's the solid, sane character in the family, and Davis succeeds at hitting some emotional moments without getting overly sappy. He even gets a laugh or two, when you least expect it.
In addition to being about family, Blue is about music and its powerful effect on people. Every musical theatre fan knows the experience of hearing a song so delicious you want to wrap yourself up in it. In Blue, that metaphor is made real. The women in Blue listen to the music of (fictional) jazz singer Blue Williams, and whenever one of them puts one of his records on the turntable, the character of Blue (played by Michael McElroy, pictured at right with Phylicia Rashad) actually appears onstage, singing to her and enveloping her in his arms as his singing envelopes her soul. It's a charming technique - don't miss Blue's expression when someone turns off his record mid-song - and it also gives the play a score, an eclectic mix of songs penned by singer/songwriter Nona Hendryx, which serve as selections from Blue's albums over the years.
Blue is great fun - hitting funny and familiar notes with its portrayal of family relations. It slows for a bit when it turns into a "family with a secret" play, but that doesn't mean it isn't a heck of a good time.
Pasadena Playhouse, State Theatre of California; Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director; Lyla White, Executive Director; proudly presents Blue by Charles Randolph-Wright. Music by Nona Hendryx; Lyrics by Nona Hendryx and Charles Randolph-Wright. Scenic Design by James Leonard Joy; Costume Design by Debra Bauer; Lighting Design by Michael Gilliam; Sound Design by Francois Bergeron. Production Stage Manager Heidi Swartz; Stage Manager Conwell Sellars Worthington III; Casting Julia Flores; Associate Director Ernest A. Figueroa. Directed by Sheldon Epps.
Blue runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through October 13, 2002. For tickets, call 626-356-PLAY. For information, click www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org Photo by Craig Schwartz